Injury and Sickness at Sea

On the Water - Exhibition Theme: Dangerous Waters

Whaling was a dangerous way to make a living. Crews spent years on the ocean, far from land and medical help. Drowning was an ever-present risk, and few sailors in the 1800s could swim. A fall from the rigging, a slip on an oily deck, a tool or weapon in the hands of an angry shipmate, a stumble, a foot caught in a coil of rope—all could cause permanent injury or death.

Other hazards to a crewman’s health were not so obvious. Scurvy, venereal disease, rickets, tetanus, and poor diets afflicted the crews of whalers and merchant ships alike.



Gift of Eleanor and Mable (Marsh) Van Alstyne

Capturing a Sperm Whale, after 1835

The most dangerous part of a dangerous job was working in a whaleboat. Gravely wounded, a whale was still strong enough to break a boat in half and flip crewmen into the water. This painting is a copy of what may be the first American whaling print, issued in 1835. It is derived from a sketch by whaler Cornelius Hulsart, who lost an arm on the whaling ship Superior.


Gift of Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of the State of Maryland

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Ship’s Medicine Chest, 1800s

Starting in 1790, American merchant ships larger than 150 tons and with more than 10 crew members were required to have medicine chests. The chests came with instructions, and the captain or first mate usually administered the medicines. This well-traveled example has labels from Baltimore, Maryland; Mamaroneck, New York; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gustav Sokol

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Ship’s Surgical Kit, 1870s

Surgical kits were not required on merchant vessels, but larger and better-equipped ships often carried them. They were used for everything from pulling teeth to amputating limbs. Like medicine chests, these kits were often sold with simple instructions on how to use them in emergencies.


Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Amputation at Sea

This illustration from the Mariner’s Medical Guide (1864) details procedures for amputating a limb, an ordeal for anyone in the 1860s, and especially so for someone injured at sea. Setting a fracture leg (below) was another procedure included in the guide.